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PORTSIDE  March 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE March 2011, Week 1


Hidden Story of Silicon Valley's Tech Workers


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Up Against the Open Shop - The Hidden Story of Silicon
Valley's High-Tech Workers

By David Bacon
March 05, 2011


On January 29, 1993, workers at the Versatronex plant
in Sunnyvale, California, filed out of its doors for
the last time. Seventeen years have passed since, but
there are still electronics workers in Silicon Valley
who remember the company's name. It was the first
Valley plant struck by production employees and the
first where a strike won recognition of their union.

The struggle of these workers, almost all immigrants
from Mexico, Central America and the Philippines,
demolished some of the most cherished myths about the
Silicon Valley workforce. It showed workers there are
like workers everywhere. Under the right circumstances,
even in the citadel of high tech's open shop, people
are willing to organize for a better life. "We said at
the beginning that if the company was going to close,
let them close," said Sandra Gomez, a leader of the
Versatronex strike. "But as long as the plant was open,
we were going to fight for our rights."

Unions have called the electronics industry
"unorganizable." Corporations like IBM, Hewlett-
Packard, Intel and National Semiconductor told their
workers for years that the company regarded them as a
family and that they needed no union. Healthy bottom
lines, they said, would guarantee rising living
standards and secure jobs. Economists painted a picture
of the electronics industry as a massive industrial
engine fueling economic growth, benefiting workers and
communities alike.

The promises were worthless. Today, many of those
giants of the industry own no factories at all, having
sold them to contract manufacturers that build
computers and make chips in locations from China to
Hungary. In the factories that remain in the Valley,
labor contractors like Manpower have become the formal
employers, relieving the big brands of any
responsibility for the workers who make the products
bearing their labels.

While living standards rise for a privileged elite at
the top of the workforce, they've dropped for thousands
of workers on the production line. Tens of thousands of
workers have been dropped off the lines entirely, as
production was moved out of the Valley to other states
and countries. Companies long ago eliminated their no-
layoff pledge. Permanent jobs became temporary and then
disappeared entirely. The image of the clean industry
was undermined by toxic contamination of the Valley's
water supply and a high occurrence of chemically
induced industrial illness.

Despite these obstacles, however, for three decades
Silicon Valley was as much a cauldron of new strategies
for labor organizing as it was for corporate management
of the workforce. Workers developed important tactics
to oppose inhuman conditions. Some unions, like the
janitors, wielded those tactics with remarkable
success. For production workers in the plants
themselves, however, the road was harder and they often
seemed to accept the industry's mythology that they
either couldn't or wouldn't organize.

The Development of the High-Tech Workforce

One of the oldest myths about Silicon Valley is that
its high-tech innovations were the brainchildren of a
few, brilliant white men, who started giant
corporations in their garages. In fact, the basic
inventions that form the foundation of the electronics
industry, especially the solid-state transistor, were
developed at Bell Laboratories, American Telephone and
Telegraph, Fairchild Camera and Instrument and General
Electric. These innovations were products of the cold
war - of the race in arms and space that began after
World War Two. Long before the appearance of the
personal computer, high-tech industry grew fat on
defense contracts and rising military budgets. Its cold
war roots affected every aspect of the industry, from
its attitude toward unions to the structure of its
plants and workforce.

As the electronics industry began to grow in the 1950s,
a fratricidal struggle within the US labor movement led
to the expulsion of many unions and union members for
their left-wing politics. One byproduct of that
struggle was the near destruction of the union founded
to organize workers in the electrical industry - the
United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America
(UE). General Electric Corp. in particular helped
ensure the fragmentation of the electrical industry
workforce among 13 different unions, with a great
proportion outside any union at all. As a result, while
the new high-tech industry was growing, the ability of
electrical and electronics workers to organize unions
in the expanding plants fell to its lowest point since
the early 1930s.

From the beginning, high-tech workers had to face an
industry-wide anti-union policy. Robert Noyce, who
participated in the invention of the transistor and
later became a co-founder of Intel Corp., declared that
"remaining non-union is an essential for survival for
most of our companies. If we had the work rules that
unionized companies have, we'd all go out of business.
This is a very high priority for management here. We
have to retain flexibility in operating our companies.
The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep,
deep divisions between workers and management which can
paralyze action."

The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for
developing personnel-management techniques for
maintaining "a union-free environment." Some of those
techniques pioneered in Silicon Valley, like the team-
concept method for controlling workers on the plant
floor, were later used to weaken unions in other
industries, from auto manufacturing to steelmaking.

Another co-inventor of the transistor, William
Shockley, won renown as a partisan of theories of the
racial inferiority of African-Americans. As Shockley,
Noyce, and others guided the development of the
industry in Silicon Valley, they instituted policies
that effectively segregated its workforce. In
electronics plants, women were the overwhelming
majority, while the engineering and management staff
consisted overwhelmingly of men. Immigrants from Asian
and Latin American countries were drawn to the Valley's
production lines. Engineering and management jobs went
to white employees.

By the mid-1990s, Asian workers made up 30 percent of
the skilled production workforce, 47 percent of the
semiskilled workforce and 41 percent of the unskilled
workforce. Latinos constituted 18 percent of skilled
workers, 21 percent of semiskilled workers and 36
percent of unskilled workers. Both groups together were
only 17 percent of management employees and 25 percent
of professional and engineering employees. The same
picture held true for women. While 23 percent of
management employees were women and 29 percent of
professionals, women were 80 percent of clerical
employees, 40 percent of skilled workers, 60 percent of
semiskilled workers and 50 percent of unskilled
workers. The picture painted by these statistics is
still largely accurate today.

African-American workers were frozen out almost
entirely. Although unemployment in the African-American
communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy
commuting distance of the plants, has remained at
depression levels, African-Americans are not above 7.5
percent of the workforce in any category and below 3
percent in management and engineering.

Karen Hossfeld, a sociologist at San Francisco State
University, who has written extensively on the status
of women in high-tech industry, explains the
segregation as a conscious decision on the part of
manufacturers. "Employers assume foreign-born women
will be unlikely to agitate for pay hikes," she says.

The First Effort - Organizing Semiconductor Workers

The historic base for organizing activity among high-
tech workers for many years was the workforce in the
semiconductor plants. Starting in the early 1970s,
workers began to form organizing committees affiliated
to the UE in plants belonging to National
Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix,
Semimetals, and others. Most of these were
semiconductor manufacturing plants or factories that
supplied raw materials to those plants.

Amy Newell helped start a rank-and-file organizing
committee at the Siliconix plant in the early 1970s.
Two decades later she became the UE's national
secretary-treasurer, the highest-ranking woman union
officer in the US at the time. After leaving the UE,
for many years she headed the AFL-CIO's Central Labor
Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon
Valley. She recalls that "although I got my job at
Siliconix by chance, we concentrated on the larger
plants because the level of capital investment by the
companies was so large there. They were the big players
and we wanted to go for the heart. Nevertheless, it was
very hard organizing a union in those plants, because
the feeling of powerlessness among the workers was so
difficult to overcome."

To organize unions in the large electronics
manufacturing plants, Newell says, "it seems obvious
that there has to be a long term effort and commitment,
with an industry-wide approach. It's hard to imagine
organizing any of the plants without a much larger
movement among workers in the industry as a whole and
in the communities in which the workers live."

By the early 1980s, the UE Electronics Organizing
Committee had grown to involve a signed-up core
membership of over 500 workers, who were participants
in a number of union campaigns.

Romie Manan was an active member of the committee
through the early 1980s, organizing Filipino immigrant
workers on the production lines at National
Semiconductor. Manan remembers that the union published
5,000 copies a month of a newsletter, The Union Voice,
in three languages - English, Spanish and Tagalog.
Workers handed it out in front of their own plants or
in front of other plants if they were afraid to make
their union sympathies known to their coworkers. "A few
of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that
the union was an open and legitimate organization, but
most workers were not publicly identified with the
union," he recalls.

The union depended on the activism of workers in the
plants themselves. For a number of years, there was no
union staff person assigned to Silicon Valley, and at
the height of its activity, a single union organizer,
Michael Eisenscher, was the committee's link to the
national union, running the union mimeograph machine in
his garage. The strategy of the UE Electronics
Organizing Committee envisioned a prolonged struggle to
win the loyalty and commitment of a majority of workers
in the semiconductor plants. Committee members
challenged the companies on basic questions of wages,
working conditions, discrimination and job security. It
won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on
racism and firings in the plants and campaigned to
expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic

Eventually, the semiconductor manufacturers, especially
National Semiconductor, fired many of the leading union
activists and the committee gradually dispersed as its
members sought work wherever they could find it. The
main strategic question, which the committee sought to
answer, remains unresolved. In large electronics
manufacturing plants, employing thousands of workers,
the process of organization doesn't take place
overnight. For a long period of time, union-minded
workers, especially worker-organizers, were a minority.
Their organization had to be active on the plant floor,
winning over the majority of workers by fighting around
the basic conditions that affected them. In the
process, it had to be able to help its members survive
in an extreme anti-union climate.

This long-term perspective is very different from the
organizing style of most unions today. Many view union
organizing as a process of winning union representation
elections administered by the National Labor Relations
Board. Others try to use outside leverage to force
management to remain neutral while workers sign union
cards and eventually negotiate a contract. While both
strategies have something to offer electronics workers,
especially over the long haul, they don't deal directly
with the situation that exists on the plant floor. The
prospects of successfully fighting a union election
campaign inside a semiconductor or computer-building
plant are extremely remote. The huge corporations have
insulated themselves from their production workforce so
well that outside pressure has little effect on them.
In reality, most unions have simply abandoned the idea
of helping workers in those plants to organize at all,
saying that they are "unorganizable."

Toxic Contamination and Runaway Jobs

Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent
unions in the plants and winning bargaining rights, the
UE Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of
activity from which other organizations developed.

The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and
Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and
safety activists in the late 1970s, included members of
the UE committee who left the plants to work on its
staff. It built broad ties with other unions,
occupational health and safety experts and community
activists. It fought successfully for the elimination
of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene and
for the right of electronics workers to know the
hazards of toxics in the workplace. SCCOSH sponsored
the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which
organized workers suffering from chemically induced
industrial illness.

Under pressure from SCCOSH and other health and safety
groups, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA)
sponsored a study of 11 plants in 1992, to disprove any
connection between the high miscarriage rate among
women in the industry and their job conditions. The SIA
study, however, proved exactly the opposite. It found a
direct connection between the use of ethylene glycols
and high miscarriage rates. SCCOSH then began a
Campaign to End the Miscarriage of Justice, to force an
end to the use of these chemicals.

"When we talk about organizing," explained Flora Chu,
then the director of SCCOSH's Asian Workers' Program,
"we have to talk in a new way. Many immigrants, for
instance, aren't used to organizing in groups at work.
SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting
collectively, instead of as individuals, when they want
to confront their employer on issues relating to
chemical use. The organization of unions in the plants
will benefit from this and help workers, if unions are
sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants."

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of
the health and safety campaigns that ripped apart the
image of the "clean industry." The Toxics Coalition won
national recognition when it exposed the large-scale
contamination of the water table throughout Silicon
Valley by electronics manufacturers. Coalition
activists organized the communities surrounding the
plants and forced the Environmental Protection Agency
to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list.

Communities elsewhere in the country became aware that
jobs brought by the construction of new electronics
plants came at a potentially high cost. In many areas,
environmental standards and requirements were increased
as a result. The Toxics Coalition also worked with the
local labor movement and city governments to force
manufacturers to list the chemicals used in the
factories and develop plans for handling the possible
release of toxic chemicals in fires or other disasters.

The UE committee's last campaign in 1982 foretold much
of the future for semiconductor workers. The committee
tried to mobilize opposition to the industry's policy
of moving production out of Silicon Valley. In 1983 the
plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only
73,700 workers ten years later. While the number of
engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses
fell much more heavily on operators and technicians.
"What this really meant," said Romie Manan, "was that
Filipino workers in particular lost their jobs by the
thousands, more than any other national group." Manan
lost his job as National closed its last mass
production wafer fabrication line in the Valley in

Rapidly evolving technology in electronics production
has a big effect on the lifespan of semiconductor
plants. A wafer fabrication line, the basic unit of the
production process, has a useful life of about ten
years. Then, it can no longer compete with newer, more
automated lines, which process larger wafers. When
technology evolves so rapidly, semiconductor companies
must build new plants and new fabs constantly. For
workers whose jobs are dependent on the production
line, the location of these new plants and lines is a
life-and-death question.

Howard High, a public relations spokesperson at Intel
Corp., stated flatly, "I really don't think we'll see
more semiconductor manufacturing in Silicon Valley in
the future." In 1993, Intel built a new $1 billion
plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California.
High said that the company decided to locate it outside
Silicon Valley because New Mexico offered Intel an
industrial revenue bond worth $1 billion, to help
finance the plant's construction. California put in a
bid as well, but couldn't match the subsidies offered
by New Mexico.

Manan and other semiconductor workers believed that
lower wages were another determining factor. "The truth
of the matter is the company can hire workers in New
Mexico much more cheaply because wages there are much
lower," he said. "New workers also earn a starting
wage, around $6-7/hour, unlike those of us with many
years in the plants here, who earned more as a
consequence. That's why National and other companies
wouldn't allow Silicon Valley workers to transfer to
the other plants."

Whether the main factor was wages or industrial revenue
bonds, large electronics companies were able to
initiate bidding wars, in which communities around the
country competed to win new production facilities by
guaranteeing a combination of cost savings, relaxation
of regulations and direct tax subsidies. In Silicon
Valley, that competition created a two-tier workforce.
The more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing
plants began disappearing. But contractors who provided
services to the large companies, from janitorial and
foodservices to the assembly of circuit boards,
employed more workers every year.

The New Wave - Organizing the Contractors

Conditions for janitors and contract assemblers are a
far cry from those associated in the public mind with
high-tech manufacturing. Workers losing jobs on wafer
fabrication lines in the semiconductor plants made as
much as $11-14 per hour for operators and more for
technicians, even in the early 1990s when the minimum
wage hovered just above $4 per hour. Companies provided
medical insurance, sick leave, vacations, and other
benefits. By contrast, contract assemblers and nonunion
janitors are paid close to the minimum wage, have no
medical insurance and often no benefits at all.

In effect, workers in the service and sweatshop sector
fought to win wages and benefits close to the level of
those achieved by semiconductor workers at the time of
the previous peak in organizing activity ten years
before. Over that period of time, the workforce of
Silicon Valley had taken a giant step backward. The
decline in living standards made the service and
sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the subsequent
focus for workers' organizing activity.

The spark that set off this second wave was the
campaign to organize the janitors at Shine Maintenance
Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to
clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters. Over 130
janitors joined Service Employees International Union
(SEIU) Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine
in the fall of 1990. When Shine became aware that its
workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had
to present verification of their legal residence in
order to keep their jobs. The company cited the
requirement, under the employer sanctions provision of
the Immigration Reform and Control Act, that it
maintain written proof of employees' legal status. When
almost none of Shine's workers could present the
required documents, they were terminated. The company
never questioned the documentation provided by workers
when they were hired or at any other time until the
union drive began.

Shine's actions ignited a yearlong campaign, which
culminated in the signing of a contract for Apple
janitors in 1992. After the firings, the union called a
meeting of activists in San Jose's large Latino
community, along with church and political figures. "We
told them that we had taken our struggle as far as we
could - that the labor movement is limited because the
law hurts workers who want to organize more than it
helps them," explained Mike Garcia, president of Local
1877. "So a community coalition went to picket when our
union couldn't, supported the workers with a hunger
strike and started a boycott of Apple products." That
community effort grew into the Cleaning Up Silicon
Valley Coalition.

According to Garcia, understanding the position of
immigrant workers was an important part of the
successful campaign at Shine and Apple. "Apple spends a
lot of money on its image," he explained, "and our
strategy attacked it. We helped people to understand
that the company was exploiting immigrant janitors and
we forced Apple to take responsibility - we told Apple
'it's your system - you control the contractors; you're
causing the exploitation." Other employers in the
Valley closely watched the campaign at Shine and Apple.
Using the same strategy, the union went on to win a
contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even
larger group than those at Apple. The momentum created
in those campaigns convinced other nonunion janitorial
contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877
and over 1,500 new members streamed into the union.

In September of 1992, janitors were joined by
electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp., who
used a similar strategy to organize against the
sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly
factories. The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 -
the minimum wage at the time - and employees with over
15 years earned as little as $7.25. There was no
medical insurance.

Sergio Mendoza worked in the "coil room," making
electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years. The
work process involved dipping the coils into chemical
baths and drying them off in ovens. "They never told us
the names or the dangers of the chemicals we worked
with," he recalled. "Sometimes the vapors were so
strong that our noses would begin to bleed." The
conditions in the "coil room" were very different from
those at the facilities IBM had at the time in South
San Jose, which it referred to as a "campus." IBM's
orders gave a big boost to Versatronex' contract
assembly business for 20 years and workers recalled
seeing IBM inspectors frequently visiting their plant.

Contract assembly provides a number of benefits for
large manufacturers like IBM. Contractors compete to
win orders by cutting their prices and workers' wages,
to the lowest level possible. Manufacturers can place
new orders on a moment's notice when production demands
increase, without having to hire any workers
themselves. When production needs decrease, they can
simply cut orders. If workers lose their jobs, the
manufacturer has no responsibility for them.

The contract assembly system, then in its infancy, has
come to dominate high-tech industry today. Corporations
like Hewlett-Packard and Apple have no factories at
all. Their entire production is carried out by contract
manufacturers in plants around the world.

Workers at Versatronex called in the UE after they had
already organized themselves to protest conditions and
as they were preparing to stop work to demand changes.
When the company heard rumors of the stoppage, managers
held a meeting to head off the planned action. One
worker, Joselito Muñoz, stood up and declared to
company supervisors, "se acabo el tiempo de la
esclavitud," which means, "the time of slavery is
over." Muñoz was fired two days later, and on October
16, Versatronex workers went on strike to win his job

In the course of their strike, workers focused on a
large customer whose boards were assembled at
Versatronex - Digital Microwave Corp (DMC). The year
before the strike, DMC closed its own manufacturing
facility in Scotland. Its orders became a main source
of work for the Versatronex plant. At the high point of
the six-week Versatronex strike, ten women went on a
hunger strike outside DMC's gleaming office building.
For four days, they fasted to dramatize their effort to
hold the manufacturer responsible for their working
conditions. Male strikers supported them by setting up
tents and living around the clock on the sidewalk
outside the corporate headquarters. Word of their
action spread like a shockwave through the Valley's
immigrant Mexican community.

"We went on a hunger strike against Digital Microwave
Corporation because they send work to Versatronex and
then close their eyes to the conditions we work in,"
explained hunger striker Margarita Aguilera. Aguilera
was a student activist in Mexico and used her
experience in student strikes to come up with tactics
for organizing workers at Versatronex. One was the
hunger strike. "It is not uncommon for Mexican workers
to fast and set up 'plantons' - tent encampments where
workers live for the strike's duration," said Maria
Pantoja, a UE organizer from Mexico City. "Even
striking over the firing of another worker is a
reflection of our culture of mutual support, which
workers bring with them to this country. Our culture is
a source of strength for our union."

As workers at Versatronex were striking for their
union, Korean immigrants at another contract assembly
factory, USM Inc., launched a similar struggle for
justice. Their employer closed their factory owing them
two weeks pay, a common event in the lives of contract
laborers. USM workers turned to the Korean Resource
Center, a service agency in Silicon Valley's Korean
community. Through the winter and the following spring,
they organized a series of demonstrations in downtown
San Jose against Silicon Valley Bank, which took over
the assets of the closed factory and refused to pay the
workers. According to Bumshik Eom, a KRC staff member,
"the bank said the workers had no power,"

In the course of the conflict, USM workers formed an
organization to provide services, job referrals and
education programs to Korean immigrants. "Although some
workers wanted to form a union, others brought a belief
from Korea that unions are communist," Eom said. "But
workers could agree on forming an organization to help
each other and to educate each other on their rights."

Despite differences in union experience among different
immigrant nationalities, almost all immigrant workers
are on the bottom in terms of wages, working conditions
and quality of life. The Versatronex strike and
movements among other South Bay workers were upheavals
from below, according to Pantoja. "They shone a light
on conditions that are like apartheid for immigrant
sweatshop workers."

Silicon Valley organizers all emphasize that immigrants
have a harder time challenging employers because they
are often unaware of their rights as workers. In
addition, employer sanctions and the threat of
deportation make the risk of losing a job much higher
than for non-immigrants. That vulnerability to the
employer and the weakness of legal protections was
cited by SEIU's Justice for Janitors as a reason for
not relying on National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
elections. To overcome the obstacle, the union
mobilized community pressure through marches,
demonstrations, sit-ins, and other mass actions. In
that context, the militant history of many immigrants
became a positive advantage, according to Eliseo
Medina, SEIU executive vice president. "Immigrants from
Central America," he said, "have a much more militant
history as unionists than we do and the more militant
workers are, the more the union can do."

New Obstacles and New Tactics

Many unions have lost faith in the ability of workers
to use the legal process for winning union
representation, especially the NLRB election process.
One worker out of every ten involved in a union
organizing drive gets fired as a result, according to
the AFL-CIO. Employers can shift production, spend
hundreds of thousands of dollars on expert anti-union
consultants and use the fear of job loss to exert
enormous pressure on workers. Although often
technically illegal, these hardball tactics go
effectively unpunished by the NLRB's legal process.

Tactics like those used at Apple, USM and Versatronex
have been at the cutting edge of the labor movement's
search for new ways to organize. They rely strongly on
close alliances among workers, unions and communities
to offset the power exercised by employers. Often,
though not always, they use organizing tactics based on
direct action by workers and supporters, like civil
disobedience, rather than on a lengthy propaganda war
during a high-pressure election campaign, which
companies frequently win.

Grassroots tactics responded well to the basic issues
of low wages and bad conditions prevalent in contract
and sweatshop employment, and contributed to giving the
Silicon Valley campaigns the character of a social
movement. As workers organize around conditions they
face on the job, they learn organizing methods they can
use to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination
in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of
daily life in immigrant communities.

The movement among contract employees took an important
step when janitors united with workers from Versatronex
and USM in a march through downtown San Jose, demanding
an end to exploitive conditions for immigrants.
Workers, unions and community organizations recognized
that they were better off challenging high-tech
industry together than as single organizations.

That point was brought home when Versatronex closed its
plant in January 1993. Workers had ended their strike
the previous November and filed a petition for a
representation election in December. "When the company
knew they would lose the election, they decided to
close," Pantoja said. "In an industry as anti-union as
electronics, I assume that the manufacturers told
Versatronex that the company would no longer get any
orders if workers successfully organized a union in the

Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the
years to permit outside contract services, like
janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be
performed by union contractors. Nevertheless, the
industry has drawn a line between outside services and
the assembly contractors who are part of the industry's
basic production process. In one section, unions could
be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they could not.

Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of
unity to challenge high-tech industry successfully and
to win the right for workers to organize effectively in
the plants. Combined organizing efforts, in which
unions seek to organize many contractors at the same
time, would limit the ability of employers to cut off a
single contractor like Versatronex.

A step toward this kind of unity was taken when unions
and community organizations came together in 1993 to
protest plans by the high-tech industry to impose its
own blueprint for economic development on the future of
Silicon Valley. The industry effort, called Joint
Venture: Silicon Valley, brought together a coalition
of over 100 industry executives and representatives of
local government bodies. Together, they projected
initiatives to shape public policy on subjects like
regulatory relaxation, education and resources for
technological development.

A labor/community coalition was formed to respond to
Joint Venture's agenda. It drew up a Silicon Valley
Pledge, calling on companies to respect the rights of
workers and communities and to deal with them as
equals. Ernestina Garcia, a longtime Chicano community
activist in San Jose, explained, "we've never felt that
the electronics industry had the interests of our
communities at heart. If they plan the future of the
Valley, they're going to do it for their benefit, not

"What we have here are different interests," said Jorge
Gonzalez, who chaired the Cleaning Up Silicon Valley
Coalition. "Economic development in Silicon Valley has
historically served the interests of the few. We want
development that serves the interests of the many. Just
protecting the competitiveness and profitability of big
electronics companies will not necessarily protect our
jobs and communities, a safe environment, our right to
form unions or our schools and public services. We
don't want anyone telling us that higher profits for
big electronics companies will give us jobs and that we
should be happy with that."

After their experiences at Apple, Versatronex and other
Valley factories, unions also tried to organize a much
broader, more comprehensive campaign, called the
Campaign for Justice. Initiated by the janitors' union,
instead of concentrating on a single contractor or
organizing plant by plant, it aimed at the whole low-
wage contract workforce. While employers could close a
single plant in response to organizing activity,
organizers argued, closing many plants would be much
more difficult. John Barton, the campaign's
coordinator, declared, "We're going to hold
manufacturers responsible for their contractors."

Rather than competing against each other, drawing
jurisdictional lines in the sand among the Valley's
unorganized workers, the Campaign for Justice was based
on union cooperation. Four separate international
unions, including the janitors' union, the Teamsters,
the hotel and restaurant workers and the clothing
workers, formed an overall strategy committee and
contributed researchers and organizers to a common
pool. Two community representatives also sat on the
strategy committee.

Ultimately, however, the pressure for immediate results
led unions other than the janitors to pull out. Local
1877 pushed forward with a drive aimed at the landscape
gardeners in the Valley's industrial parks. The
campaign won the support of many workers, some of whom
were fired in the process. Workers marched through the
streets and brought community pressure to bear on
contractors and their corporate clients. Eventually,
however, the campaign was folded into the effort to
renew union contracts for the Valley's janitors.

When the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 made the 1994
ballot, janitors joined other immigrant-based unions
and immigrant community organizations in the statewide
effort to defeat it. Those efforts led to long-term
relationships between unions and immigrant communities.
At the initiative of the janitors, SEIU called for
repeal of employer sanctions, as did the garment unions
and the state labor federation. Six years later, that
coalition led a successful effort to get the AFL-CIO
nationally to call for the repeal of sanctions, a key
step in reordering labor's relationship with immigrant

For a number of years afterward, the South Bay Labor
Council of the AFL-CIO mounted an effort to run a
temporary employment agency for high-tech workers. This
effort gave the labor movement a presence among some
workers, but it concentrated on high-skilled employees
rather than production workers on the lines. Unions had
no presence in the plants themselves and didn't seek to
mount factory-floor campaigns for improvements in

Electronics Companies Press for Political Changes

After President Clinton was elected in 1992, high-
technology companies began using their support for his
campaign to press for changes in labor law to bring it
into line with what they called new realities. Unions
and workers also wanted changes, including enforcement
of existing rights and new legislation to take into
account the proliferation of contract and temporary

The Clinton administration set up a commission to
review labor law reform, the Commission on the Future
of Labor-Management Relations, called the Dunlop
commission for its chairman, John Dunlop, labor
secretary under President Nixon. But its mandate,
rather than reinforcing workers' union rights, was "to
make recommendations concerning what changes, if any,
are needed to improve productivity through increased
worker-management cooperation and employee
participation." The Dunlop commission's key hearing in
Silicon Valley was convened by Joint Venture: Silicon
Valley at the request of Marty Manley, the Department
of Labor's deputy secretary for the American Workplace.

Silicon Valley firms had the ear of the Clinton
administration. The president and vice president made
numerous high-profile visits to company facilities;
Valley executives were prominent in Clinton's 1992
election campaign and the chair of the Joint Council of
Economic Advisers was Laura d'Andrea Tyson, a UC
Berkeley professor with strong ties to the industry.

Bill Usery, labor secretary under President Ford, noted
that in other parts of the country most corporations
declared that little reform of labor law was needed. By
implication, labor law and the administration of the
NLRB had become so ineffective that companies believed
it was no longer a significant restraint on their
union-fighting activities.

But corporate executives in Silicon Valley were not
content with inaction. Their program not only called
for extensive changes, but involved a whole new
philosophy and public policy for labor/management
relations. Under the klieg lights in San Jose's
cavernous convention center, witnesses gave the
commission a good first-hand look at the "high
performance workplace" - at work teams,
labor/management cooperation, the contingent workforce
and the new world of "corporate culture and values."

According to Pat Hill-Hubbard, senior vice president of
the American Electronics Association, "employees have
become decision-makers and management has practically
disappeared." Doug Henton, representing Joint Venture
Silicon Valley, announced, "Unions as they have existed
in the past are no longer relevant. Labor law of 40
years ago is not appropriate to 20th century

Not everyone agreed. "The company always told us that
they had to be competitive," said Romie Manan,
describing his years at National Semiconductor.
"Increasing the company's profitability, they said,
would increase our job security. That was the purpose
of our work teams - to make us efficient and
productive. So we became more efficient. Our yield rate
on each wafer went from 80 percent to 95 percent.

"Then the company took the ideas contributed by the
experienced workforce in Santa Clara, which they got
through the team meetings and used them to organize new
fabs with inexperienced workers in Arlington, Texas,
where wages are much lower. The experienced workers
lost their jobs. The team meetings stole our experience
and ideas and didn't give us any power to protect our
jobs and families. The company chewed us up and spit us

In the heyday of the UE Electronics Organizing
Committee, the plant had almost 10,000 workers, working
directly for National Semiconductor. By the time Manan
was laid off in the early 1990s, employment had fallen
to 7,000. Over half worked for temporary employment
agencies, including almost all production and tech
workers. Manpower, the temp agency, had an office on
the plant floor.

Intel Corporation presented a panel of speakers to
shoot Manan down. Phuli Siddiqi, an Intel worker,
presented "a worker's perspective" - that "Intel is a
great place to work." She described "worker ownership
of projects and products," and the company's program
for employee recognition, called "pat on the back." But
she couldn't deny that Intel jobs were vanishing from
Silicon Valley overnight. Personnel Director Kimberley
Dyess even declared, "there are no more jobs at Intel.
We just have people and work to be done."

The high level of participation by electronics
companies in the Dunlop hearing reflected their
unspoken worry that many of their new structures for
labor/management cooperation were illegal. At National
Semiconductor, according to Manan, the company told
workers they had to team up with management in order to
defeat the Japanese competition. Fear for their jobs,
he said, drove workers to join the teams, which were
used to undermine union organizing efforts. Section
8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act prohibits
company unions, especially as a way to discourage
workers from organizing genuine union. Dyess emphasized
that large electronics companies wanted to eliminate
section 8(a)(2).

Unions took on another part of the dark underside of
high-tech employment - the contingent workforce. Esther
Thompson, a janitor who cleaned Apple's buildings, told
commissioners, "I need two jobs because neither pays
enough to pay my rent, feed my children and pay my
bills." According to Mike Garcia, president of SEIU
Local 1877, "high-technology manufacturing doesn't
create high-wage, high-skill jobs. It patterns itself
after the service sector. Contractors in manufacturing
compete over who can drive wages and benefits the
lowest." Labor law, he said, should tie contractors to
the manufacturers they work for. Big manufacturers
control the wages and work lives of contract workers
indirectly and they should be responsible for them.

In the only real exchange between commissioners and
witnesses, Thomas Kochan, an MIT management professor,
and Doug Fraser, retired president of the United Auto
Workers, asked industry representatives if they'd agree
to accept responsibility for contingent or contract
workers or allow workplace committees to represent
workers in dealing with management over wages and
working conditions. "We're not looking for someone to
represent employees," responded Deborah Barber from
Quantum Corp.

"The concept of representation seems archaic," added
Cheryl Fields-Tyler from the American Electronics
Association. When Fraser asked them what alternatives
existed for workers unhappy with management decisions,
Debra Engel, vice president of 3-Com answered: "the
company has an open-door policy."

The audience laughed.


Perhaps the most telling comment about the state of
labor law is that the most effective organizing
activity among workers is that which depends on the law
the least. While this seems to give up any immediate
hope of reform, labor law reform efforts ultimately
depend on rising organizing activity on the ground. As
Frederick Douglass said, "power concedes nothing
without a demand."

According to Steve Lerner, architect of the national
Justice for Janitors strategy, the National Labor
Relations Act was only passed in response to large-
scale strikes and organizing drives. "Workers will get
better laws," he said, "not because they're a good
idea, but because the level of conflict is so
disruptive that a rational system is better." Douglass
called it "thunder and lightening," and the "awful
roar" of the ocean's waters.

In the fall of 1995, a new leadership was elected to
head the AFL-CIO. John Sweeney, who had been president
of the Service Employees and a staunch supporter of
Justice for Janitors, became the federation's new
president. During the struggle over leadership, Tom
Donahue, the interim AFL-CIO president, whom Sweeney
defeated, tried to convince convention delegates that
the federation was really a narrow "trade union
movement." He attacked his opponents for supporting a
"labor movement," or "social movement," one that would
move away from Washington and into the streets,
organizing and speaking for immigrants and low-wage
workers, in unions and out of them. Militancy, he said,
"marginalizes" the labor movement.

Debating him on the floor of the convention, Sweeney
advocated a commitment to use direct action tactics
where necessary to organize workers on a much larger
scale. In the end, most AFL-CIO delegates saw Donahue's
vision as the source of labor's marginalization, not
the solution to it, and elected Sweeney instead.

In many ways, the Sweeney program for change was more
limited than the movement that propelled it into
office, seeking to solve most problems by hiring staff
and organizing committees and taskforces within the
AFL-CIO structure. The strategy was called by one
supporter "revolution from above." Sweeney and his
supporters inherited the mental framework that saw
organizing drives primarily as the product of paid
staff, rather than as an upsurge among workers

Ten years later, Sweeney's own union, the Service
Employees, left the AFL-CIO along with several others,
calling for a greater emphasis on organizing activity.
The debate between them, however, revolved primarily
around how much money to spend and how many organizers
to hire, rather than a deeper challenge to the staff-
driven model. The Silicon Valley strategy for uniting
community organizations and unions in a grassroots
campaign to defend workers as they actively tried to
organize moved away from a reliance on the activity of
workers themselves. Newer, non-NLRB strategies
advocated by SEIU and others often relied on gaining
employer neutrality and agreement to card-check
recognition. That process many times involved bargains
with employers at a very high level, far removed from
workers themselves.

It is extremely unlikely that high-tech companies, with
their history of total hostility to unions, would ever
agree to such measures without a virtual revolution in
their workforce. Neither the AFL-CIO nor the Change to
Win federation are likely to assign vast new resources
to help organize that kind of social movement among
workers in the electronics industry in Silicon Valley.

Yet, Silicon Valley is the citadel, the fortress of the
country's most anti-union industry. Overcoming it has
the same strategic importance that organizing the steel
and auto industries in Pittsburgh and Detroit had in
the great industrial union upsurge of the 1930s. For
the working class and communities of color in Silicon
Valley to assert their own interests and to ensure that
economic development meets their needs, the workers in
the Valley's plants must be organized. High-tech
industry dominates every aspect of life in Silicon
Valley, and its voice is virtually unchallenged on
questions of public policy because the workers who have
created the Valley's fabulous wealth have no voice of
their own.

Strong, democratic, rank-and-file unions in the
electronics plants can give them that voice and in the
process change every aspect of political and economic
life. The basic decisions on issues of living
standards, job relocation, toxic pollution, housing,
discrimination and economic development could then be
made by the people those decisions affect the most,
rather than by employers or public officials, whether
well-intentioned or not.

In the 1920s, the steel and auto industries also seemed
like insurmountable bastions that unions would never
organize. And, yet, a decade later, as a result of a
radical social movement based among workers themselves,
they were organized in a matter of a few years. This is
the challenge of Silicon Valley, the goal sought by its
working people for three decades.

David Bacon worked at National Semiconductor for a
number of years until he was fired in 1982. He was
president of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee
from 1978 to 1983 and was the lead UE organizer
assigned to the Versatronex strike.


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